Tag Archives: Richard Dawkins

Would you like to auto-recycle all your old items now?

When you’re interested enough in something, and sense that there’s so much depth to plumb and you know so little, the beginning of the pieces coming together, for you at least, can seem like a revelation. Like, maybe this stuff is actually not only the key to my life, the way out and up and on to my full potential (which might not be much, but at least it’s an honest evaluation), but it might explain a while lot more. It might explain the entire span of evolution, of the rises and falls and ultimate future demise of human civilization, and even why Trump got elected.

For you, the defining paradigm might be electrolyte balance. Or maybe a macrobiotic or paleolithic diet. Maybe it’s mindful living, or a growth mindset. Maybe keeping your home fires burning, or an attitude of trust and obey, for there’s no other way (not likely, if you are reading this). I respect your right to choose your own lens through which to see the world, but the one I’m trying on is the biology, my love.

The genes we carry want to carry on. That’s by definition, not necessarily an indication of divine purpose (though I don’t rule out the possibility). According to Richard Dawkins, the ultimate unit of life and the driver of all survival instinct is the gene. How genes operate is by building bodies around them made of cells, in myriad forms which carry them into all kinds of environments so they can absorb resources–atoms and molecules to be made into genes and cells and body copies to carry them around. Doesn’t even matter which kind of body they build, as long as it efficiently does the work of replicating those genes and spreading them around. That can be by reproduction, but also by being a host for the replication of other cells and bodies such as parasites, bacteria, and viruses, or food–a quick remix of ingredients, of another beast carrying around similar genes. It’s not the species that’s trying to survive, or the population, or family, or individual, but the genes inside them all.

So if a species which has so far been successful at allowing the replication of the genes within it starts to threaten the replication of the exact same genes in other species (such as chimps, dogs, frogs, or bacteria, all of which are carrying around many of the same genes in varying degrees) it would make sense that the other carriers of the genes might take it down in some way. Likewise, if a carrier gets off on a side track of thinking and behaving as if replication isn’t so important after all, that it’s the life of the spirit, or culture, or just the individual me, myself and I, that matters, then again, the genes influencing that carrier either directly (from within) or indirectly (in the ecosystem) should interfere and go to plan B.226.3alpha, which is, let that species self-destruct, releasing its genes into the parasites, symbionts, decomposers and predators better equipped to do the job. Fire and the gnashing of teeth, start again.

A bit more about the curbing of reproduction: If the evolutionary success or fitness of a species is defined as its ability to sustainably reproduce, why would a population ever stop trying to be fruitful and multiply? Why is it that as humans become more “educated,” they are less likely to try for large families or engage in polygamy, and more likely to use contraception, delay childbearing, or choose not to have children at all? Not, as in the bees and other species, to take care of the head couples’ brood because it ensures the survival of the genes we share in common. Why would genes, which by definition are replicators, allow the formation of thoughts and behaviors that lead to the reduction of reproductive behaviors?

History shows that it’s the most educated and technologically advanced that use, waste, and pollute the most resources, so it’s definitely in the interests of genes to curtail the reproduction of such beings. And we thought it was a sign of higher culture to exercise choice over our own bodies, and of progress to embrace a diversity of types of love, even if they aren’t centered around procreation! Instead, it could be an adaptation to the rise of extra-destructive variations in the human genome, a function of genes that are cutting down on a bad model. Maybe a subsistence life with a good deal of natural mortality might be better for the survival of the fittest. A cultural agenda focused on the eradication of poverty, disease, and homelessness may be at odds with the agenda of the genes within our bodies and in the bodies around us, from the tiniest virus to the dearest friend or relative.

I don’t want that to be true. I’ve got attached to those aspects of my culture and beliefs. Dawkins says we can “rebel” against our genes, the main example being contraception. I’m not convinced—I think Dawkins is being inconsistent. I think he just wants to believe that being an intellectual is higher on the evolutionary chain of fitness than being the head of a polygamous cult in the desert or one of the throngs of wiry street urchins of the inner city that grows up to leave broods of unwashed, unloved children staring through laundry hanging in urban alleys crawling with rats, disease, and criminals. Just like he wants to believe that there is a divine and benevolent creator, though this belief is differently expressed, as a reckless, headlong plunge into logical analysis of biological evidence to the apparent contrary. I can relate to that.



Posted by on November 26, 2016 in Ideas, science


Tags: ,

Who’s making the decisions here, the genes of the masses, or great men of history?

What I hear about in the news and see going on, like war and xenophobia and altruism, and love, and all of it, really could be seen as biologically driven phenomena, and I want more of us to admit it. I’m all for a spiritual or humanistic interpretation too, but it’s also the biology, stupid. There are undeniably biological, biochemical, and fundamentally genetic and epigenetic roots of behavior, and I’d like to see that aspect to be addressed along with the socio-political, ethical, and economic. Should we let Syrian refugees in, mitigate the chaos that’s over straining their homeland resources so that it can recover? Or should we slam the door shut on those displaced by cultural influences they cannot overcome, that lead to civil war and murder and environmental abuse? Should we protect for ourselves and our offspring these finite habitat resources, favor the genetic variations most closely akin to us, and maintain social stability? Or should we welcome these fleeing young families who have survived, who had the strength and intelligence to migrate all the way here, and so will seed our stock with strong genes? Both altruism and xenophobia can be argued to have biological, or genetic, root causes, that’s what I think. Same with race relations, gender identity, sexuality, resource politics, and so much more. Acknowledging evolutionary roots does not mean caving in to determinism, but provides balance to the wishful thinking that education and the exertion of individual and collective will can make all our “problems” go away. A simplistic social Darwinist perspective certainly acknowledges the influence of evolutionary biology, but equates evolutionary weakness with lower class, while contradicting itself with the complaint that the “weak” are multiplying too much (which should be considered a characteristic of the strong or fit, by Darwinian thought).

Now that I’m almost done with Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene, I’m even more convinced, except that I accept his argument that it’s not fundamentally the individual or group that is the root of selective pressures, but the genes themselves. It must be so, or the same genes wouldn’t still be around. The same individuals never occur again, after all. Not sure how that would pan out at the socio-political level, this apparent drive by genes themselves (really just random natural selection of those able to successfully replicate). Maybe just a manifestation of a healthy variety of social views resulting in various social trends and cultures, all derived from a hodgepodge of gene-driven influences at the cellular level.

This point of view is influencing what I tell my high school students, too. When we were on the topic of plants that germinate in the dark and then grow for the life of them, or die trying, I told them that the plants do that because they are descendants of plants that survived because they did that too, and the rest, apparently, didn’t succeed.

Apparently no one response to mass migration or economic policy or social views on self governance has proven to be significantly effective for the propagation of genes, or we would have ended up with mainly one point of view. All the points of view that were disastrous all the time are gone. Or maybe the environment has fluctuated so much, we’re still in that cycle, letting it all play out, and haven’t yet reached an evolutionarily stable strategy–an kind of Age of Aquarius many hope for, and Imagine. A good number of folks have carried forward genes that manifest as a drive to change things, sure, campaigning and writing and preaching and teaching. Others have successfully populated the Earth with conservative human minds, with people who wish to be led, who don’t want change, and so that must be an important part of the genetic survival strategy, too. At least up until now.

Because now, the most educated and affluent have rebelled against their genes, choosing to have few children or none at all. Dawkins believes we are capable of rebelling against our genes because of consciousness. I’m not so sure. I think maybe our genes have responded to the tendency of affluent people to destroy their own resources by cutting down on their reproductive rate. Pro-Choice, indeed. Sure, overpopulation is a problem in India and so on, but just watch what happens when the “standard of living” rises there. It will be like rabbits reabsorbing their fetuses, combined with lemmings running over a cliff. In the West, the Plague wiped out a third of Europeans, then a bit of European pathogen DNA killed most of North American residents early in the Age of Discovery, so it seemed for quite a while that colonization, expansion, economic growth and Industrial Revolution might be a good thing, maybe even the best thing, for the human race. All those suffering from its effects in Europe either died or escaped to America, but not before featuring as at least a minor character type in a good nineteenth century novel, asking for alms for the poor or being told to eat cake. Though they were never required to dress for dinner.

1 Comment

Posted by on January 29, 2016 in Culture & Society, Ideas


Tags: , , , , , , , ,